Recently I've had a lot of run-ins with MBA students at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. As a group they are smart, capable, and hard-working. However, I've personally noticed several traps they've fallen into that seem to be common among business students and recent grads from schools around the country. This is my un-asked for, free advice to those students and graduates. My hope is to help them avoid the traps I see so many falling into already.
The Mighty Business Plan
One of the students I had a meeting with was on the eve of earning his degree, just a few short months away. He was explaining to me the idea he would continue working on after graduation as a full-fledged startup. He said he had been working on the business plan for his entire time in grad school - over a year and a half. I nearly choked on my coffee.
You should not be working on a single business plan for more than month. Even that is probably a huge amount of overkill. Make it a week. That's much more reasonable. I think you could even do it in a business week of five days. Here's my proposed schedule, which you could accomplish with even minimal part-time hours:
- Day 1: your idea. Flesh it out a little. Consider the scope. For the first version only include what is absolutely necessary to create a minimum viable product. Mark any other features as a later version, and then forget about them.
- Day 2: your market. Does it exist? Roughly how big is it? You don't need exact numbers or tons of research. Estimating will save you a lot of time.
- Day 3: your competition. Does it exist? As a rule, if you are searching Google for more than an hour and haven't found anything, then your competition effectively does not exist - even if they technically do - because they cannot be easily found in the place most people will look. But if they do show up in the results, roughly how entrenched are they and how popular is their product? Again, estimate.
- Day 4: your required resources. This could be as little as a timeline and basic dollar amounts. How long will it take to develop and market this product? How much capital do you need up front? Do I need to say it? Estimate.
- Day 5: review. And by review, I mean cut. Get rid of all the fluff and tangents that were built up even given this small amount of work you've already put in. Have a competitor on the list who is only rumored to be branching into the same market? Cut it. Have a feature that'd be nice to have, but not a core requirement? Cut it.
Really, only the first day is required to move forward. The other days will just give you more data to help make the only decision that matters: do you want to make this idea a reality? If the answer is still a hearty "yes," then please continue.
Paper Prototyping: No Code Required
You need to get feedback early and often. Iterating on an idea is the single best way to make it better by exposing both weaknesses and strengths. It allows you to fix problems and exploit opportunities. (I know you're good at those.) And you can do it without writing a single line of code or even consulting an engineer. This process is called paper prototyping.
Step into the role of designer for a moment. Take a look at the number you wrote down as the cost for implementing this idea. Now replace it with a zero, because you can create a low-fidelity version of your product for nearly that. With just a few elementary school supplies you can mock up the interface for your product with paper, crayons, glue, and markers. Jakob Nielson explains the virtues of paper prototyping and A List Apart has examples to go along with their recommendations. These resources should be sufficient to give you a pretty good idea what paper prototyping is about.
Once you have a paper prototype you can easily show it to friends or family - or even a friendly stranger at the local coffee shop - and see how they interact with it. Ask them to think out loud and explain what they're doing, what they want. Give them a simple goal in the form of a story, like "you want to buy a new dishwasher from this site" and then show them a "page" that represents the index of the site. When they "click" on a link with their finger, switch the page out with the appropriate one. This method can easily be adapted for software beyond websites, and even hardware products.
You'll be amazed at the feedback you receive. You'll realize that even your paper prototype could be improved. So improve it! Then return with the new version to get more feedback. Most people love being involved in the design process, and will be happy to help. You will immediately see huge gaping flaws in your thinking about this product, and you'll have a clearer idea what the best direction for it is. Given this information, you are now much better prepared to bring this idea to investors or an engineer. And it didn't cost you much time or money.
Kill Your Darlings
Occasionally though, you will encounter a part of your idea that needs to be removed, but you desperately want to keep. Learning to recognize these situations and act on them is a really hard part of the process, but it will make you a stronger leader for being able to do it. This is sometimes referred to as the ability to "Kill Your Darlings" and Adaptive Path has a post about just that.
Learn to Code
If you have an idea that has survived your own scrutiny and that of others, then maybe it's time to create a more high fidelity version. Often a mockup on the computer is effective, and it still doesn't have to be fully functional for you to be able to talk about it with others in a meaningful way. Services like Balsamiq help you do just that.
Beyond continuing to prototype, there is no reason why you can't learn to code in your free time. If your ideas are so good that you think an investor should give you money for them, then why not try bootstrapping instead to keep a larger share of the company for yourself? At the very least, you could create a demo or early working prototype to put yourself in a better position at the bargaining table.
Modern scripting languages like Python are exalted for their simplicity and ease of use. There is even a really good free book for beginners available. If you want to go the Ruby route, then you can even go through an interactive tutorial right in your browser.
Finally, if that seems like too much, then consider just making a few pages that link to each other in HTML. This is very simple, and can be accomplished with a few lines of text in a few files on your computer - no server or backend required. I was doing this by the time I turned ten years old, so I am absolutely certain you are capable of figuring it out.
Engineers Are Not Code Monkeys
If you do decide to enlist the help of an engineer, then understand that they do not exist simply to do your bidding. Believe it or not, engineers often have a slew of their own ideas, and don't need yours. Your time is not more valuable than theirs. In high demand industries and geographies (e.g. web development in the Bay Area) engineers are highly sought after and have a lot of opportunities to do exciting things. Understand that you are competing for their attention, and respect them.
Most engineers are not willing to work for free, even with the promise of future rewards. You will have to give up either money or control. Lets talk about the money first. If all you want is a functional product and you aren't trying to build up a team, then there are sites to help you find someone to do it for a set amount, like Elance. Or if you want design work done, then use a site like 99 Designs.
However, if you want a technical partner, co-founder, CTO, etc. then you must be willing to sacrifice up to 50% of your share to an equal. For potential full-time employees doing hard, thinking work, money is not a good motivator. Having control and influence over a product is. Dan Pink talks at length about this in his amazing TED talk on motivation.
Finally, my self-plug is merely this: if you do have an idea for a product that you want built quickly by a professional, then feel free to contact me.
I hope this post helps you create better products, faster. Remember that you don't need a million dollars to put an idea in front of a member of your market. You just need some paper.